Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Hicks"

Read this wonderful post by most films and TV and theater" portray "hicks," and the way that the Bush regime uses its power to pit poor against poor. It is a powerful read.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Future -- and Theatre?

Over at the Lit Dept, Malachy Walsh (congrats on the new baby, Malachy!) embedded this YouTube vid in a short post in which he pondered the world into which his baby was about to be born. I don't know how to embed these things, so either go to Malachy's site and watch it, or click here.

Back?

OK -- in the spirit of Parabasis, let me throw out a question: should this video have any impact on our conception of theatre? If so, what?

Great Discussion

Great discussion going on over at Don Hall's "Angry White Guy in Chicago," where several people are kicking around the question: If we think theatre could serve a purpose beyond pure entertainment, how might that purpose be defined? Check it out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hope and "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

An interesting segment of All Things Considered this evening about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Thriller writer James Rollins compares the book to the movie versions, and discusses how the endings differ. I would contend that the ending of the movies are hopeless, the ending of the book hopeful. Listen, or read!

Theatre of Hope, Strength, and Inclusiveness

I am disappointed to have missed the wonderful discussion over at Angry White Guy in Chicago's blog, that started last Thursday while I was attending the AlternateROOTS conference and not following the theatrosphere. Don Hall proposed the making of a list of plays according to my call for theatre that ""makes the community stronger, more caring, more inclusive, and more hopeful." Twenty-seven comments followed, and a small list started to come together. Fascinating. Some of the plays I'd agree with, some I wouldn't. Which is neither here nor there.

A few things I'd like to clarify: Don, my love of really goofy comedy was not the center of my belief in theatre of hope, strength, and inclusivity, but rather a personal outlier that I had to come to terms with. It seemed to me that an aesthetic that couldn't encompass pure joy was stillborn.

Devilvet -- I have not dismissed people who are "doing the work," but rather have said that simply doing the work without considering purpose or alternatives is to accept the status quo. Since I don't accept the theatrical status quo, I don't find doing the work to be sufficient in itself. I require some self-reflection. That's me, those are my values -- other's mileage may differ.

Devilvet also offered a list of plays that he thinks I might identify as falling outside this aesthetic. While I wouldn't agree with all of them, I think his impulse is pretty good in general. But rather than address each play, let me give an example: I think Pinter's The Homecoming is absolutely brilliant. I have taught it and seen it several times. But I can't direct it, and I can't see clear to producing it, because it is so very ugly. I feel the same way about Mud and Woyzeck (although I don't think the latter is a great play), and I would have to think a while about Endgame (although I think Waiting for Godot and Beckett's wonderful late short plays like Rockaby ARE filled with hope, in the sense of characters facing life with courage and determination). Death of a Salesman posseses a great deal of hope because of Biff, who comes to learn from his father's mistakes.

Hope, strength, and inclusiveness doesn't discount tragedy or plays that don't end happily. For instance, "MASTER HAROLD...and the boys" ends very painfully, and also is very hopeful. Add it to the list. Sophocles' tragedies also shows humanity strong in the face of overwhelming odds, even though ultimately defeated. Shakespeare's tragedies obviously end badly for the central characters, but show that enlightenment through pain is possible. I think I would argue that Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis increases empathy for those suffering from mental illness on the part of the audience. That said, there are plays by Shakespeare, for instance, that I wouldn't include, for instance Titus Andronicus, which is just ugly 24/7, despite Julie Taymor's attempts to make the ugliness glow.
I seem to be using the word "ugly" a lot, and I suspect that is revealing in some way. Last night, I was reading Paul Rogat Loeb's 1999 book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. In it, he tells the following story:

Will Campbell has been a Baptist preacher, a civil rights activist, a farmer, a writer, and a volunteer cook for his friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. One day he was invited to participate in a student conference on capital punishment at Florida State University. Only at the last minute did he discover that he was supposed to formally debate an erudite scholar whom he personally liked, but whose opinions he disagreed with. Will's opponent delivered a long philosophical argument in favor of the death penalty as a means for buttressing the legitimacy of the state. Then Will got up to present the case against it. Noth­ing equally weighty came to mind, so he said, slowly and deliber­ately, "I just think it's tacky," and sat down. The audience laughed.
"Tacky?" the moderator asked.

"Yessir," Will repeated. "I just think it's tacky."

The moderator asked him to expound, and Campbell repeated
his statement.

"Now, come on, Will," the moderator said. " 'Tacky ' is an old Southern word, and it means uncouth, ugly, lack of class."

"Yessir, I know what it means," said Campbell. "And if a thing is ugly, well, ugly means there's no beauty there. And if there is no beauty in it, there is no truth in it. And if there is no truth in it, there is no good in it. Not for the victim of the crime. Certainly not for the one being executed. Not for the executioner, the jury, the judge, the state. For no one. And we were enjoined by a well-known Jewish prophet to love them all." (bold mine)
I tend to agree with Campbell: if there is no beauty there, there is no truth in it. There is beauty in the strengthening of empathy. In the fall, I will be directing Roadside Theatre's play, Thousand Kites, which is about the Prison-Industrial Complex in this country. It's not a topic that makes one want to skip around. But after seeing the play, and the documentary they made about the same topic, and participating in a discussion about the issues raised, I believe the audience will leave with a greater sense of empathy for both inmates and guards, and a sense that something must be changed -- in fact, the last ten minutes of the discussion, which serves as the second act of the play, focuses on actions the audience can take. Increased empathy equals increased strength in the community.

I use the word "hope" in a very specific way: it is a belief that things can change for the better for me personally and for my community/society in general. Hope is based on a sense of empowerment. Hope is the opposite of Jesus' line to Pilate in Jesus Christ, Superstar: "Everything is fixed and you can't change it."

The question that seems to arise in the discussion on Don's blog (again, thanks so much for opening the discussion, Don) is whether this criteria is so broad that no plays fall outside of it. And I really can't answer that, except to say that the criteria are not meant to narrow the field of plays to a niggling few. I would also say that, for me, the application of the criteria is filled with grey space. For instance, I'm not certain whether I feel A Streetcar Named Desire has any hope in it. The message seems to be that the brutes will destroy the sensitive people, and that it is passed from person to person -- Stanley destroys Blanche as brutally as Blanche destroyed her husband. But do we come away from the play feeling more inclined to empathize with the delicate and not admire the strong quite as much? I don't know. But I think it is a worthwhile inner struggle to have when deciding whether to do a play at a particular time. I think the reflective artist is the stronger artist. I would have similar feelings about many of Euripides' plays like The Bacchae and Medea, both of which seem like cautionary plays (don't fail to honor the gods, don't betray those who have sacrificed for you) or something like Sweeney Todd (past injustices return with big, nasty teeth). I love those plays, and I would have to decide whether I thought they offered hope, strength, or inclusiveness.

I know there are many who think that everything is clear black-and-white in my mind, a simple manichean system of good and evil. I can assure you this is not the case. What I believe, however, is that it is worthwhile to develop one's sense of purpose and one's values and criteria for judgment, and then actively use those values when deciding what work to create. I don't believe in simply following one's impulses, one's "gut." I think artists should be conscious and have a conscience. I don't think being an artist releases you from the responsibilities of all human being to make the world a better place, not a worse one. And that requires awareness and a moral conscience.

Rising Appalachia

I encountered this great trio, Rising Appalachia, at the AlternateROOTS last week and I became an immediate fan. A fusion of traditional Appalachian music and contemporary alternative (reminds me of Cowboy Junkies with a banjo), they describe themselves like this:

Music is becoming our tool...not just for aural pleasure, not just for hobby-but now as a means to connect with something beyond ourselves. It is taking its own personality, carrying us all along on the journey down the damp and strange alley ways and cryptic coded pathways... to poetic observations, social change, lyrical nonsense, political rage, symphonic coercing, ferocious bantering, cycles and train tracks, primal will, fresh air intoxicants, harmony and alliteration, noise and something sweeter than I can ever touch. -post-apocalyptic folk fusion soul mending...perhaps?

Listen to some of there stuff here.